Julia Roberts meets Sigmund Freud in Goa: A review of Dear Zindagi, directed by Gauri Shinde, India 2016, 4*
Currently in general release in UK cinemas
Reviewed by Dr Khalid Ali, Screening room editor
Bollywood cinema has secured its international box-office appeal with a well known formula of combining action, melodrama, song, and dance in one film. Indian director Gauri Shinde adapts this winning formula in her new film Dear Zindagi- Deal life, but adds a contemporary message of exploring serious subjects namely the stigma of mental illness, doctor-patient relationships, and the role of mindfulness in well-being.
A recent prevalence study published in the Lancet Psychiatry showed that 4.7% of Indian women suffer from a major depressive illness, and 4.1% suffer from anxiety disorder (Baxter AJ, et al., 2016). In addition the magnitude of mental disorders is expected to increase by 23% in India by 2025, warranting an urgent need for a co-ordinated program of prevention, early diagnosis and effective management (Charlson FJ, et al., 2016).
Kaira (Alia Bhatt) is a young beautiful cinematographer who has it all; beauty, brains, and wealth. However an unexpected series of personal and professional failures put a halt to her thriving career. In a story line reminiscent of Julia Roberts’ travels to India in the Eat Pray Love 2010 film (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eat_Pray_Love), Kaira relocates back to her parents’ home in Goa in an attempt to make sense of the meaning of life and relationships. Insomnia and family pressure to find a husband drive Kaira to suffer from anxiety and possible depression. Ashamed of the stigma of mental illness, she seeks help from a ‘brain doctor’ in secret. Dr Jehangir Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) is a charming clever clinical psychologist whose in-depth analysis of dreams makes him the modern day ‘Sigmund Freud’. The theories of Sigmund Freud relating to the ‘subconscious’ through dream analysis are cleverly illustrated with the ‘brain doctor’ helping Kaira figure out that her suppressed childhood traumas of abandonment maybe the underlying cause for her fear of commitment.
Dr Khan also shares with the young patient his own traumatic experience of choosing clinical psychology as a career to the dismay of his parents. Blurring of the boundaries between patients and health-care professionals in a therapeutic encounter is another topical subject that ‘Dear Zindagi’ shows without any prejudice. Similar themes were explored in films as far back as Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Spellbound’ 1945 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spellbound_(1945_film)), and as recent as Steven Soderbergh’s 2013 film ‘Side effects’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Side_Effects_(2013_film)).
Through long probing but friendly sessions of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), both clinical psychologist and patient eventually come to terms with their hidden demons. In revisiting happy childhood memories, and connecting with nature, they practise ‘mindfulness’ as a way out of their unhappiness.
It is refreshing to find a Bollywood film with a charming lead actress, Alia Bhatt in a career defining role that could easily land her the title of ‘India’s Julia Roberts’, that still manages to discuss serious subjects of mental illness and stigma, and simplifies without trivializing the benefits of ‘talking therapy’ and ‘mindfulness’.
See trailer here.
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- Baxter AJ, Charlson FJ, Cheng HG, et al 2016. Prevalence of mental, neurological, and substance use disorders in China and India: a systematic review. Lancet Psychiatry 3 (9): 832-41.
- Charlson FJ, Baxter AJ, Cheng HG, et al 2016. The burden of mental, neurological, and substance use disorders in China and India: a systematic analysis of community representative epidemiological studies. Lancet 388 (10042): 376-89.
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